Grades as measurements

The following post was originally published on SmartBlogs Education on January 23, 2013:

medium_406716712I have gone to great lengths in my classroom over the past few years to teach my students everything I know about grading and assessment. Why? Because I am trying to dispel the notion that a grade (all by itself) is an accomplishment. I want them to understand that learning is the goal. Grades exist simply to communicate the amount of learning.

Convincing my students, however, is easier than convincing their parents, other teachers, administrators and community members. It seems that everyone has bought into the idea that a good grade is an achievement that should be rewarded. It’s common sense, right? To earn an “A”, students must have worked hard and sacrificed, and we want to encourage that kind of character. We compensate students with sports eligibility, scholarships and plaques for academic excellence. In some families, there is even a financial reward.

Why do we do this? Well, the answer is simple. We learned in our Psych 101 courses that if you want a behavior to occur more often there must be a positive consequence when it does. Put aside for a moment the findings of Daniel Pink and others that this sort of classical conditioning only works for simple tasks. The underlying problem is that a grade is not an accomplishment. It’s a measurement.

Consider this: would you give your daughter a prize for being an inch taller at her annual check-up? Would you clap a student on the back and praise him for having a body temperature of 98.6 degrees? Of course not because these measurements are seen as important information that a medical expert will use to diagnose and treat problems. So, why don’t grades work the same way?

The easy answer is that we have created this monster. As parents, we have incentivized our children to earn better grades. As teachers, we publicly recognize the best scores. As school leaders, we herald the honor roll. We create intense pressure among nearly all of our students to earn the highest marks.

This pressure breeds negative behaviors. We see students so focused on earning an “A” that they stop thinking in creative ways. Students begin to undermine each other to improve their rank, rather than developing collaborative skills. Cheating becomes rampant in a world where all that matters is the letter on the report card.

All of this can be seen in a typical classroom, especially near the end of a marking period. Students who slacked off for weeks beg for extra credit. Those who have not demonstrated superior content mastery try desperately to find a way to excel. Unintended lessons supersede the important ones: Effort is more important than mastery, appeasing the teacher is better than studying, and if I can’t turn my “F” into an “A” there is no reason to try anymore.

So, what’s the solution? In my classroom, it comes down to re-education. I train my students to understand the value of assessment. They know that formative assessments help me (and them) to understand their weaknesses and address them. They see the value of improvement over the absolute mastery level. They begin to see each test as a check-up, not a challenge.

Obviously, I can’t change a system that values letter grades so highly. But, I can help my students value my feedback and their own growth over the fleeting thrill of an “A”. And I can look on with satisfaction when they begin to care about their own progress without rewards or consequences from anyone else.

photo credit: timsamoff via photopin cc

9 thoughts on “Grades as measurements

  1. And it continues at college…. Mrs Prior I felt sick and couldn’t take this test at optimum level this is why I got a 78. 1. I don’t care. 2. Have you thought about the fact you are in nursing school… Surrounded by nurses…. Who if you were sick would have encouraged you to go home and get well.

  2. Well, it just wouldn’t be a discussion on Grades: “measurement vs. achievement” if I didn’t weigh in I suppose. Everyone to your usual, respective corners…

    “Because I am trying to dispel the notion that a grade (all by itself) is an accomplishment. I want them to understand that learning is the goal. Grades exist simply to communicate the amount of learning.” …. “The underlying problem is that a grade is not an accomplishment. It’s a measurement.”

    But if the grade measures the learning, is the LEARNING not an accomplishment? Should we feel proud when we learn? Accomplished? Excited? Should we feel…anything?

    I agree with these challenges as you’ve outlined them; the scramble for extra credit (which would falsely inflate the measure of learning) and valuing an “A” itself and not the learning it SHOULD represent. I share the experience in my classroom. But, it seems like you wish to remove ALL emotion from something that SHOULD sometimes have emotion to it.

    “Consider this: would you give your daughter a prize for being an inch taller at her annual check-up? Would you clap a student on the back and praise him for having a body temperature of 98.6 degrees?”

    No, but I don’t expect my child could do anything to change those measurements. His/her effort would not yield more height nor would I expect him/her to hold a lightbulb to the tongue to “try to get” a certain temperature.

    However, what if someone changed lifelong habits to lower blood pressure without medication? Or a 25-year heavy smoker quit and saw measurable health benefits? Or someone who has always struggled with weight lost, say, 30 pounds? I’d say those people have accomplished something, wouldn’t you? What about any other medical measurement example that would require real effort over time, rather than to just showing up to the appointment and popping a thermometer in your mouth? Because what we ask students to do is tougher than that.

    When are they allowed to be proud?

    “Effort is more important than mastery, appeasing the teacher is better than studying, and if I can’t turn my “F” into an “A” there is no reason to try anymore.”

    Effort PRECEDES mastery, though more is needed for some students, and for the same student perhaps more is needed in different subjects. I agree that there’s an “all-or-nothing” mentality where some just give up. Getting students motivated is a great uphill battle. However, there’s a lot of room between an A & F. And I’m not grading on being appeased, are you?

    1. Thanks, as always, Erica, for your feedback and perspective.

      I guess my larger point is that we need to separate the grade from the accomplishment of learning. Celebrate the learning, through publishing student work and showcasing knowledge, but don’t celebrate the grade. The grade itself doesn’t necessarily represent any level of effort, as you point out that it takes much more work for some to reach an A than others. When the overweight individual loses the 30 hard-fought pounds, it isn’t the number on the scale that they should be proud of (because 30 pounds wouldn’t mean anything to a 600 pound obese man) but rather the health, vitality and extra years of life that have now been earned.

      As an added bonus, if we can help students to be proud of themselves about the skills and knowledge that they have obtained, they are more likely to continue learning long after grades stop being handed out.

      How’s that for emotion?

      1. Unexpected. Good points well made. Looking at growth & change is also important. It’s not that the 30 pounds number doesn’t matter, as there’s no guarantee for any extra years really. It’s looking at where one starts and ends, as a life-long quest to self-actualization. I’ve toyed with the idea of giving a grade based on growth from unit pre-test to post-test. (Maybe 0-10% growth a warrants C, 11-20% growth a B, more than 21% growth an A?) This does not seem fit with a “mastery” model, however.

        Were you in charge, would you remove grades all together? If so, how would you communicate to colleges and other stake holders about students’ skills and abilities for placement?

        1. That’s a great question, and I guess my answer would be to start the year with a clear explanation to parents and students alike that grades are a form of communication and a measurement of mastery. Nothing more. And then I’d begin finding ways to encourage each child without putting a grade on a pedestal.

          How about you, Erica?

          1. I understand what you’re saying, Paul. It’s just that I don’t think saying it’s “nothing more,” will take any pressure off the grade. “But I WANT my child to MASTER 7th grade science. How else will I know other than my kid’s grade from Mr. C?” Your major philosophical difference won’t change a parent’s perspective.

            Meanwhile, who decided 70% is the threshold for mastery, anyway? It’s not even the same in all states. Should it even be the same for two students each with IQs of 117 and 74 respectively? (Serious question.)

            Your description of publishing work and showcasing knowledge had me thinking that today’s technologies would allow for a more outside-the-box approaches to knowledge analysis and reporting. Students could have an online body of work and list of mastered standards, rather than a letter grade, for colleges and such.

            So I guess my answer is, whether it’s six numbers on a report card or one number from a standardized test, the more boiled down the data, the less I think it represents a student. How to fix it depends on how tethered to the current system we decide we have to be.

  3. Paul, you said, ” In my classroom, it comes down to re-education. I train my students to understand the value of assessment. They know that formative assessments help me (and them) to understand their weaknesses and address them. They see the value of improvement over the absolute mastery level. ”

    I agree wholeheartedly with this philosophy. From my experience as a former high school math teacher, it was challenging and rewarding to motivate students away from chasing points and towards feedback for learning’s sake.

    I’d love to see a blog post in which you iron out the types of activities and conversations you’ve found to be successful in making this classroom shift.

    1. Matt,

      Thanks for your comments and don’t worry. I have a post in the works that shares some of this. I think that Larry Ferlazzo does a great job of developing metacognition, and I’ll share some resources in that post as well.

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